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New research demonstrates that patients in the palliative care setting benefit most from short, repeated doses of massage therapy in the hospital.
Specialists in palliative care provide comfort and support for patients with advanced conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and dementia. Sometimes patients need more than the latest medications.
Our research, recently published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, demonstrates that massage therapy can help improve the quality of life for patients with advanced conditions.
Over the last decade, palliative care has become embedded throughout MedStar Health, providing more than 10,000 individual consultations in the previous year. My colleagues and I are using research to enhance our clinical operations. This study is among the first prospective randomized trials in palliative care at MedStar Health.
Our goals were to measure whether massage therapy in the hospital benefits our patients and to study the outcomes from different “doses” of massage. Just like medication, we wanted to learn whether one massage was better than several and whether a more extended massage has more benefits than a shorter massage.
To answer these questions, we partnered with Arlington, VA-based palliative massage experts Healwell and, importantly, our patients.
Studying massage “dose” in the hospital.
In the hospital, patients don’t have a spa-like massage. They face necessary interruptions from providers and staff amid the hustle and bustle of a busy floor.
So, we elected to study whether shorter or longer massage helps more and whether repeated massages are better. Our study enrolled 387 patients with an average age of 55.7 years. About 61% of these patients were women, and nearly 66% identified as African American. We segmented them into three groups:
- Patients who received one 10-minute massage per day for three days
- Patients who received one 20-minute massage per day for three days
- Patients who received a single 20-minute massage
With our partners from Healwell and input from patients, we designed massages to address their individual needs, such as calming to rest and relieving specific muscle pain or generalized discomfort.
To help generate usable data from the subject experience of a massage, we asked our patients to complete the McGill Quality of Life Questionnaire. This survey measures physical symptoms, emotions, social life, and quality of life. We also asked them to tell us about any changes in their pain, their satisfaction with the massage therapy, and their experience with feelings of peacefulness.
Sometimes, the subjective experience of physical pain is not relieved by massage, but patients still experience a sensation of feeling better. There hasn’t been much research into this phenomenon, and it isn’t easy to define. That’s why we wanted to start collecting data for further exploration.
Massage benefits patients in palliative care.
In our study, regardless of dosage, all three groups improved their quality of life after the massage. We found that repeated massage can enhance the quality of life more than a single dose and that 10 minutes is just as effective as 20 minutes.
Next, we’re designing an implementation study to learn if there are benefits from different massage approaches in the hospital setting. We know that 10 minutes of massage is effective, so we can efficiently use massage therapists’ time, benefit more patients, and include massage in our workflows.
We’ll explore how massage might help patients rest, feel better after receiving care, and heal more effectively—even after treatment, also known as a halo effect. Over time, we hope to learn how massage might become a central component of patient care.
This research helps us develop an evidence-based palliative care program that supports our clinical mission and our patients long into the future.